It’s difficult to know where to begin when talking about Cherry. The now-heavily memed image of Tom Holland with a shaved head pointing a pistol directly at the camera seems to have been released years ago amidst mumbling and murmurs of the Russo Brothers making a film about an opioid-addicted bank robber, but it seemed to be stuck in post-production for years before we finally got to see the glorious “Cherk” posters that popped up a couple of months ago. But what actually is Cherry. Well it’s a couple of things, first and foremost it’s an adaptation of Nico Walker’s novel of the same name detailing the story of an Iraq War veteren who becomes addicted to heroin due to the growing opioid crisis and turns to bank robberies to fund his growing habit. But the film is also something else, it’s a testing ground for the Russo’s as directors as despite being responsible for some of the highest-grossing films of all time, there’s still a lot of doubt surrounding the brother’s skill with many criticising the limp filmmaking and flat style of their MCU work and attributing the success of the film to outside factors like brand loyalty and Kevin Feige’s creative control. So Cherry served as an opportunity for the brothers to prove that their MCU work wasn’t a fluke and that they are serious directors with credibility.
…..If only it had worked. That’s right, to no-one’s surprise Cherry does not absolve the Russo’s of their previous criticisms and instead amplifies many of those points. It’s abundantly clear that the duo were attempting to go for a more artistic approach, drenching each shot in what I can only assume they thought was visual style. The phrase “everything but the kitchen sink” doesn’t do justice to just how much is attempted in this film, and oftentimes these shots do look really nice outside of the context of the film. One of the best examples of what I mean by this is when the teenage Cherry and his friends are being driven to a bank. The camera is clearly mounted on a rig in the middle of the car and it pans revealing all of the passengers in due turn, and I remember being really impressed that they managed to pull this off, but as soon as you consider it in the context of the film, the scene was obnoxious, served no narrative or thematic purpose and was merely padding. And this is the key problem of the film, a lot of the cinematography seems like it’s only included to flex the skill rather than add to the film itself, which of course ends up having an oxymoronic effect by ultimately detracting from the film. Another example includes a cameo from Joe Russo himself as the actors, and Joe, are all frozen mid-party while the camera weaves its way through the restaurant, again visually it’s a delight and honestly I wouldn’t even be able to begin to tell you how shots like that are pulled off, but within the context of the film this scene does nothing except show a party going on at the restaurant Cherry works at…. that’s it. While in isolation the cinematography of these scenes is impressive, it’s the lack of any real meaning to them or integration into the narrative that prevents the film from benefiting from the impressive camerawork. If I had to speculate I honestly believe that the Russo’s were attempting to fight back against the “Marvel isn’t art” discourse that have been growing and thought that if they could pull off every single cinematography trick under the sun it would somehow demonstrate that they can produce “real cinema” but there’s just a total lack of understanding of the point of these tricks/techniques outside of their technical complexities.
Moving onto the narrative itself, the film attempts to be an Epic. This isn’t a secret by any means as the teaser relied on the idea of Cherry as a “modern odyssey”, but aside from the film’s two and a half hour runtime there’s nothing that gives the film that sense of scale. The Russo’s seem to think that by giving way too much time and detail to the most meaningless aspects of Cherry’s early life it somehow imbues the film with that sense of epicness, but there’s so little substance in what we’re shown by the time you’re an hour into the film you really don’t know much about Tom Holland’s character other than the surface level information we’re given (i.e. he’s poor, he joined the army because the love of his life dumped him, etc.). The film never bothers to explore any deeper exploration of the material, and outside of Cherry you’d be lucky to get literally any sort of character development or motivation. For some reason the film seems to think I feel attached to Cherry’s war friends who die despite offering nothing of substance to the character aside from telling/showing me that Cherry befriends them, the same with Cherry’s drug-addicted friends later on, they’re just sort of there but there’s no character development or resonance to be found. The most egregious example of this has to be Tom Holland’s love interest Emily, played by Ciara Bravo, and while it may seem like I’m being reductive by introducing her character in that way but honestly that’s all she is in the film. Emily never has her own agency or her character, all we learn about her comes through Cherry. She becomes a prop both for Cherry and the film as a way to keep a lingering sense of humanity for Cherry while also an easy way for the Russos to demonstrate that he isn’t an inherently bad person. It’s such an obvious crutch and while many films have done similar things successfully, the complete lack of characterisation of Cherry to begin with means that it misses the mark completely.
But one of the most egregious parts of this film is the Russo’s overall intention. Despite what Nico Walker was trying to do when writing a book about his own experience falling victim to the opioid crisis, the Russo’s see this as a puff piece, nothing else. There’s a complete lack of empathy, sympathy or meaningful exploration of addiction, the trauma of veterans, or how America funded and fueled the opioid crisis through their disenfranchised youths. All this story was for the Russos was an attempt to prove themselves as serious directors. They wanted something edgy and anti-MCU and they think shots from the POV of an asshole, and a drug sequence can show that they’re more than just superheroes and can handle serious mature work, but the complete lack of understanding of the themes and messages at play in this story demonstrate better than anything that they were way out of their depth